Eastern Europeans Under Lockdown May Keep It That Way on Sundays

(Bloomberg) --

In deeply Catholic countries in the European Union’s east, some politicians are trying to leverage virus-lockdown measures to ban shopping on the Sabbath.

Slovenia’s ruling party supported a bill to keep stores closed on Sunday in an initial vote in parliament, while Slovak Prime Minister Igor Matovic is considering doing the same. In Croatia, the government pulled back from an outright ban but has opened a public debate on whether retailers should open only 14 Sundays a year.

“Shops should be closed on Sundays,” Slovenian Prime Minister Janez Jansa said in an interview with Radio Ognjisce. He has championed the idea with other conservative politicians and the church since it won almost 60% support in a non-binding 2003 referendum.

Although opinion polls often show low approval ratings for Sunday shopping bans, the topic is a repeating theme that arises whenever conservative parties take power in much of the region.

And sometimes the idea is popular. In Slovenia, 95% of trade union members support Sunday closings, even if it would mean lower wages and despite warnings from the Chamber of Commerce that as many as 13,000 jobs could be lost.

In Slovakia, three quarters of people support extending the ban after pandemic regime is lifted, according to a survey by the Focus pollster. Trade unions and some retailers are also on board.

“A push toward more traditional policies was expected after the Slovak election,” said Michal Vasecka, director of the Bratislava Policy Institute think tank. “The coronavirus crisis was a trigger and the Sunday ban is a test case.”

Public Outcry

Keeping shoppers away from stores on the Sundays isn’t always a hit. Hungary lifted its ban in 2016 after it faced widespread public disapproval.

In Poland, the country with the region’s largest Catholic population, the nationalist government may discuss lifting its ban on Sunday shopping to help retailers, after sales fell by more than a fifth in May from a year earlier.

Croatian retailers forced the government to backtrack after they presented data showing that Sunday is their second-busiest day of the week and warned that 5,000 people would lose their jobs if they were forced to close.

Prime Minister Andrej Plenkovic was also accused of allowing places of worship to reopen as a way to win over conservatives before July 5 general elections.

“The decision that religious gatherings are more important than schools is regressive and hurtful,” Damir Bakic, a mathematics professor at the University of Zagreb, said on Facebook. “How is it possible that for our society masses are more important than education?”

©2020 Bloomberg L.P.

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